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Learning to Weigh, Saving the World

What if the whole world were debaters?

Would our public discourse improve? Would people be more reasonable? Would the issues of fake news and cheap arguments and dishonest rhetoric start to fade into the background?

It’s always occurred to me that if there’s one debate skill that might push the public forward to something better, it just might be weighing.

Weighing, of course, is comparison between arguments and impacts.

This may, in fact, be where much of our discourse breaks down.

The extreme movement toward social justice in our society, in particular, can be misguided when the extreme energy behind it is channeled into the wrong places— consider that short people, ugly people and low-IQ people— all whom compose major parts of our population— face discrimination in employment, dating and other areas, yet receive little to no attention in the public discourse.

Likewise, consider the inability of Americans to weigh themselves against the rest of the world— while America falls painfully short of the rest of the world in some key areas (like healthcare or gun violence), widely condemning the American government or system belies the inability to accurately weigh America vs other countries, say on poverty, inequality, freedom, opportunity or other metrics.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at how we can weigh situations and impacts— both inside of debate rounds, and outside in our own lives and in the political landscape broadly. Let’s look at how to give perspective to nearly any situation.

Stock Mechanisms

The 3 standard ‘out of the box’ weighing mechanisms— what you can picture as fulcrums on to place two situations, impacts or arguments on— are Magnitude, Probability and Timeframe.

Magnitude— how big of an issue is it? Often considered in terms of lives and money. For Magnitude, having quantifiable metrics (ie, numbers) makes this process quite simple.

  • Consider what’s kills more Americans: school shootings or airplane hijacks? Which one is our national policy, including billions in resources, directed at preventing?

Probability— how likely is it to actually happen? Even issues or arguments with giant magnitudes lose much of their power when the probability is revealed to be negligible.

  • Which is more likely for a middle-aged man to die from: too much BBQ, or a hand-to-hand combat situation? Which do they seem to overwhelmingly focus on?

Timeframe— timeframe has two components: how quickly something will happens— also called urgency— and how long something will last. Both of these can be an impetus for prioritization.

  • Which will last longer: the effects of climate change, or the effects of literally any geopolitical move— the difference is orders of magnitude, as is the attention paid to each.

Of course, these mechanisms can be used in tangent with one another—

A US-China was is an extremely important subject, and related arguments have weight, because i. The probability seems high that it’ll happen, ii. In a relatively short timeframe (within 10 years by some estimates) and iii. Can have an enormous magnitude, even dwarfing World War 2 in terms of casualties if it goes nuclear.

Likewise, my lifelong quest to learnt to fly by flapping my hands is, by all standards, unimportant on a political scale. i. The magnitude is small— it only effects me, and, while cool, is only a locally useful power ii. The timeframe is decades away (it’s a lifelong quest for a reason) and iii. The probability of success is hard to write because we don’t have enough zeros to put after the decimal.

Other Mechanisms

Anytime you compare two arguments— or, in debate, two policies-- the standard by which you judge the two is a weighing mechanism. Therefore, we don’t have to limit ourselves to the standard three.

Severity is essentially magnitude without numbers. How extreme or serious is this matter? While it’s hard to weigh, say, decreased food flavor for a country vs a marginal decrease in happiness in another, we can apply our intuitions to say that happiness is a more severe issue than the flavor of food.

Topicality is often overlooked. How closely does your argument or impact actually relate to the resolution or topic? Even fantastic arguments about vehicle emissions have little place in a discussion of standardized test validity— and even weak arguments about standardized tests would therefore win on this mechanism.

Scope is the variety of impacts an argument covers. For example, a policy that had an impact on health, the environment, and education— for good or bad—has a wider scope than an argument that only impacts one of these areas.

Irreversibility can be used to judge a policy. If a reversible policy fails, we can always fix it or try something else. But an irreversible action can only be done once, and an irreversible impact can’t be fixed. Therefore, these impacts can be seen as relatively serious.

Evidence, though not often seen as a weighing mechanism, totally is one. The quality of your evidence, including the date, credentials, source and other quality metrics can put it above your opponents’.

Framework is a more technical mechanism usually constrained to formal debate. If you tell the judge up front, or decide with your opponent up front, what the most important value is for the debate, then use that value to judge all the arguments against— whether the value is human happiness, or economic growth, or utilitarianism.

Thanks for reading, and hope it helps.

Comment below any other mechanisms you can think of!

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